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Steve Flink: Tiger Woods controversy invites comparisons to tennis

4/16/2013 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

A wide range of tennis observers are also close followers of golf, for obvious and understandable reasons. Both tennis and golf are individual sports, comprehensively testing the character of the participants, forcing the players to make all kinds of tough and quick decisions whenever they step out onto the field of competition. Last Friday afternoon, golf’s most renowned champion was moving into the latter stages of the Second Round at The Masters in Augusta, Georgia. Tiger Woods seemed to have produced a gem of an approach shot when he hit the Flagstick on the 15th Hole, but then the unforeseeable came into view in an astonishing turn of events.

After Woods’ stroke struck the Flagstick, the ball did not land close to the hole and afford him the opportunity of a birdie and perhaps an inexorable march to a fifth Masters title. The ball rolled off the green and into the water. Woods realized he had no better option than to take a “drop” from as close as possible to the spot where he had just released the previous approach shot, knowing he would lose a stroke in the process. He made another remarkably good shot and then bogeyed the hole. He finished the round with another bogey on 18, and both Woods and everyone else believed he stood three shots behind the leaders.

In his television interview shortly afterwards, Woods spoke about the drop and said he wanted it a yard or two back. That set off an alarm with the Master’s Tournament Competition Committee (MTCC) because it was possible Woods had violated a rule by dropping the ball too far from the original spot. The MTCC had already reviewed it on tape and found no infraction. Two rules officials were standing in the vicinity of the 15th green, but apparently they felt Woods had not broken a rule. Meanwhile, a photographer took shots that seemed to indicate that Woods hit both approach shots from almost precisely the same place. Woods turned in his scorecard with a bogey for the 15th hole, and that seemingly was the way it was supposed to be. But a television viewer called into the event and reported that Tiger had broken the rule.The MTCC examined the video again after Woods had done his interview, and they determined that he had ventured too far. The airwaves on Saturday morning were swirling with rumors that Woods might be disqualified for submitting an incorrect scorecard, but after the Masters officials met with Woods and confirmed that he had not deliberately broken the rule, they decided to assess him a two stroke penalty for the incorrect scorecard, placing Tiger five shots back of the tournament leaders rather than three. That meant that he had gone from a bogey to a triple bogey for that fateful 15th hole. To many experienced observers, that seemed to be the right solution because a new clause had been added to the original rule more than a year ago allowing for the two stroke penalty rather than disqualification from the tournament in cases where a player has not intentionally broken a rule.

Even so, some authorities disagreed with the decision, including former champion Nick Faldo. They believed Tiger should have disqualified himself even after being told of his two shot penalty, which I thought was ludicrous. To be sure, golf prides itself on the integrity of its competitors, and its heritage is built largely around strict adherence to the rules. In my view, Tiger was given the same latitude with that rule as anyone else would have been afforded. Some believe that The Masters officials gave Woods a break because it would have been such a severe blow to CBS television over the weekend, but I don’t subscribe to that notion at all. Masters officials surely realized a disqualification—something that would have been automatic until recently—would have been too severe.

As my friend John Martini—a first rate tennis player and golfer who is deeply knowledgeable about both games—wrote to me by email, “Integrity is ingrained in good golfers. There are players who called penalties on themselves causing them to miss out on Q School by a stroke. Roberto De Vicenzo lost out on a green jacket at The Masters because he signed the wrong score on his scorecard even though he actually won the tournament. Tennis, however, is a head to head combat where you take no prisoners…. In golf you accept the rules and call yourself out with a penalty despite how arcane the rules can be. In tennis, you rant and rave over whether to use the challenge system or not.”

But Martini rightfully points out that the “illegal drop” controversy erupted because an outsider convinced the authorities within the tournament hierarchy to reexamine what happened with Woods. As Martini says, “I don’t like the fact that a TV viewer can call in and cite and infraction of the rules. Not all of the players are highlighted in the TV coverage so you have an imbalance of such scrutiny. The governing bodies of golf (the R &A and USGA) and the local tournament officials should only police play themselves. In the Tiger incident I think the Master’s Tournament Competition Committee ultimately caused much of the commotion themselves. At the time of the drop no one challenged the “as close as possible” option. The MTCC made their determination prior to Tiger’s 18th hole that things were fine after reviewing the video of the drop. So Tiger signed his card as one would expect him to do. It wasn’t until Tiger’s post round interview where he claimed he dropped two yards back to get a better shot that the MTCC made an about face.”

That is what bothered me so deeply. None of the powers that be saw a rules violation from Woods at the time he played the approach shot. The MTCC did not see any issue when they first reviewed it. And the officials standing near the 15th hole also apparently had no problem with Tiger’s drop. I have been racking my brain to think of instances like this in tennis, to find any parallels with that incident in our sport. In the end, there are some interesting cases of tennis players having their consciences tested or unethically breaching the rules, but nothing that resulted in a player being penalized a day after the fact the way Woods was.

Perhaps the most interesting case in tennis of a committee stepping in to bring reason to the rules was in Stockholm at The Grand Prix Masters. This was in 1975, and Arthur Ashe was playing Ilie Nastase in a round robin contest. Ashe was leading 4-1 in the final set. Nastase was serving at 15-40. He kept stalling, looking across the net and taunting his opponent. “Are you ready, Mr. Ashe?,” said Nastase more than once. Ashe—admired universally for his stoicism— was quietly irate and took matters into his own hands when the umpire failed to seize control. He walked over to the side of the court and collected his belongings, and departed.

He had technically retired and given Nastase a victory. But Masters tournament officials intervened a while later and elected to step in and award Ashe the triumph, deeming Nastase’s behavior unacceptable, realizing that the umpire should have disqualified Nastase and had been negligent. Ashe later said he felt like he was conducting a “citizen’s arrest.” Incidentally, Nastase rebounded and won the tournament.

In 1967, the American Clark Graebner confronted Danish left-hander Jan Leschly in the semifinals of the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills. Graebner had climbed from two sets to love down and was serving for the match at 5-4 in the fifth. At 15-15 in that game a ball barely touched the American’s racket and travelled over the baseline, apparently giving him the point. But Graebner forthrightly walked up to the umpire to say that he had made contact with that ball, and that cost him a crucial point. Leschly broke back for 5-5 before Graebner closed out a dramatic account 3-6, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, 7-5. That was an admirable display of character from an intense and ferocious competitor, a shining moment in his career.

Eighteen years later in the final of the U.S. Open, the American tandem of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso faced the Frenchman Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte in the final. The Frenchman took the opening set in a tie-break and had five set points before dropping the second in another tie-break. The third set tie-break was pivotal. Seguso was serving at 4-6, with his team down double set point. Leconte hit a shot that clipped the net cord and went over the baseline. The Frenchman were convinced that the ball—however slightly—had touched Flach, perhaps grazing his hair. Noah and Leconte wanted Flach to tell the umpire that the ball had touched him, but he refused to do that, claiming he was not sure. That point went to the Americans. Flach and Seguso rallied to prevail, taking the third in the tie-break and the fourth 6-0. Noah and Leconte seemed absolutely disheartened at the end. The controversy here was in many ways the polar opposite of Graebner-Leschly, as Flach refused to turn himself in. That was one of those rare calls a chair umpire or linesman could not make.

Travel to 2003, when Justine Henin faced Serena Williams in the semifinals at Roland Garros. Williams lost the first set but sealed the second and went ahead 4-2, 30-0 in the final set. Henin was caught off guard when Serena released a first serve, and so the Belgian put her hand up to indicate that she was not ready. Serena should have been given another first serve, but the umpire had not seen Henin raise her hand. He ruled that Williams had to hit a second serve. Henin rescued herself and survived 6-2, 4-6, 7-5. Neither player believed the dispute had altered the outcome of the match, but Henin was castigated by tennis fans and players for not letting the umpire know what she had done in that seventh game of the final set. Although this incident was badly blown out of proportion, Henin still should have approached the chair umpire to confirm her gesture. That would have been an act of decency reflective of her entire career, which she conducted with much class and character. But Henin chose to let it go, probably believing that it is up to the officials to officiate while a player’s responsibility is to compete and play the calls—the good, the bad and the questionable.

That is why I have such a hard time comprehending the rules of golf, which are sometimes too murky. It makes sense to find a way to avoid disqualifying a player for making honestly misinterpreting or simply not knowing the rules. In the case of the drop, how is anybody to know precisely what “as nearly as possible” to the original spot really means? Woods generously conceded later that he had clearly gone beyond “nearly”, but he had not done so deliberately. Arguably, he had not even broken the rule.

Martini wrote to me, “Initially, I and apparently others were unaware that the MTCC addressed the situation with Tiger prior to the scorecard signing. Many pundits called Tiger out on his integrity and admonished him for not withdrawing himself. Only Tiger knows the intent he had on that drop. His interview appears as confirmation that he intended to drop behind the “as close as possible” spot. That’s the integrity issue right there. If you don’t know the rule, too bad: you suffer. If you know the rule and try to take unfair advantage with the wrong drop, then all golfers have a problem with that and you should be disqualified. [But it is] hard to take Tiger to task when the MTCC gave him the green light to continue with no penalty.”

That latter point is critical. I have no doubt that Woods would not deliberately break a rule with his drop. Why would anyone in his position do that? The television cameras chronicle his every move. Even if he wanted to bend or stretch the rules, he could not get away with it in full view of the cameras. He was guilty of a surprisingly casual misunderstanding of an important rule, but the fact remains that the rule—even with the revision—is poorly structured and ill conceived. I believe there should be a rule in golf where any time a drop is required, the player waits for an official to examine the situation and clarify for that competitor that he is indeed complying with the rule. Don’t ask so much of the player—have an official end any ambiguity.

The late Herbert Warren Wind—a superb sports writer and masterful craftsman—was widely acclaimed by many as golf’s ultimate authority. In an article for the New Yorker in 1968, Wind--- an unimpeachable traditionalist but a progressive man who valued common sense and fairness—wrote the following about De Vicenzo’s incorrect scorecard that cost him a major title. Wind asserted that “an unreasonable burden” was placed on the players. He wrote, “The score that the player makes on the course is the score he should be credited with. It should be the responsibility of the tournament officials as well as the golfer to see that the score he returns is the right score. If an error is discovered, the important thing is to see that it is corrected. No penalty should be imposed. Golf, like every other sport, is meant to be a test of athletic ability and not of bookkeeping.”

Martini makes an excellent comparison of the two sports and how the rules are applied. He asserts, “As for the relative fairness of the rules in both sports, tennis seems less complicated. In fact, the ITF [International Tennis Federation] rule book is basically 30 rules. Golf has three sections to its rule book with well over 30 rules each and many subsections, including a section on how to interpret the rules. That tells you something right there. Tennis rules are clear while golf rules have all kind of circumstances associated with them.”

To be fair, Martini makes a good point about the philosophy instilled in golfers from their earliest days in the game, and how that may contrast with tennis players of a different mindset. He contends, “In golf you accept the rules and call yourself out with a penalty despite how arcane the rules can be. In tennis, you rant and rave over when to use the challenge system or not. Tennis players don’t even admit that a ball hit them (US Open 1985 final with Flash-Seguso and Noah-Leconte). Tennis players complain if their opponent moves during their ball toss. [It’s] integrity versus petulance. You’d never see a golfer curse out on the course at a rules official, yet tennis players have no problem with their snotty comments towards the chair umpire.”

That is entirely valid. Both tennis and golf have their pros and cons when it comes to the conduct of the players and the honesty of the combatants. Perhaps golf has been more committed to teaching the virtues of fair play. There is a highly regarded list by “The First Tee” of nine core values that includes responsibility, integrity, sportsmanship, courtesy and judgment. It may well be that golfers are more inclined to take stock of guiding values when they are young and allow those values to carry them through a lifetime.

The fact remains that tennis has many exemplary sportsmen at and near the top of the ladder. In the final analysis, the Tiger Woods episode was—at least to me—instructive. I thoroughly concur with Martini, who says, “It’s hard for me to imagine a tennis ruling one day later that would affect the outcome of a tournament. You cannot dock a tennis player two points on the first service game of a final for a bad call or misbehavior in the semifinals the night before. Nor is there a precedent for a TV viewer citing a rules infraction that I’m aware of.”
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.